Til the Casket Drops

On the Waterfront (1954, Columbia Pictures)

“I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.” – Steph Curry, October 2015

So often, when assessing the circumstances surrounding a season and its participants, onlookers make the critical error without the proper framing. This is true of culture – Lemonade as the greatest work of artistic liberation this year, this decade or this century, let alone this week – but is dominant in sports. Conversations abound concerning Karl-Anthony Towns’ place in the all-time NBA player hierarchy with, now, nearly as much frequency as LeBron James’, if you look in the right places.

Rare is the situation that doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to have a definitive historical identity waiting in the wings. This season, the NBA gave us two, possibly three, teams whose historical contexts seem almost preordained. Rarer still is the fact that each team faces unique circumstances which are fascinating in a vacuum but even more so when contrasted with one another.

With all their fire-starting and three-popping, the Golden State Warriors are the cream of the basketball crop. Despite Steph Curry’s injuries, which have already limited him in these playoffs and will keep him out for roughly another two weeks, the Warriors have held strong, relying on a combination of smart coaching°, keen bench play and timely scoring from the other starters to dispose of their first round opponent in five games and continue an already mind-melting season. Statistically, this team has already won the war of historical context, much to the chagrin of former players who can’t stand these kids and their damn jump shooting.

Their first round opponent, by the way? The Houston Rockets of James Harden and, probably formerly, Dwight Howard. Western Conference Finalists only a year ago, though it feels like an eternity at least, the Rockets slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season and never really looked like they were there at all.

It took a last-second shot from Harden to steal a game from a Curry-less Golden State, but that wasn’t stopping anything. In a stroke of meta dysfunction, the looks on the faces of the Rockets’ bench when they realized they had won that game prompted its own reactionary think pieces. Reactions to reactions: that’s as good a summary of Houston’s season as any and will likely be even more apt come the offseason.

They dumped a perfectly capable coach in Kevin McHale early in the season, and he’s the one who benefited the most from it. Needless to say, the Rockets played the role of villains this year, and winning with this squad would’ve been redemption to approximately twelve people and a few dozen Dream holdovers in southeast Texas.

Like the Rockets, history was never going to be kind to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were always destined to run headlong into hate. Unlike the Rockets, however, the Clippers have never had a full opportunity to prove their worth in the playoffs. Knocking off the Spurs in the first round last year was promising, but it came at a cost; now, the current best team in Los Angeles has its hands tied down 3-2 to Portland without its two best two-way players in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

That the Clippers have received so much scrutiny seems to come largely from a handful of powerful forces. First, they’re essentially new money in an old money town, having long been the irrelevant stepchild sharing a bedroom with, well, Kobe Bryant.

Apr 20, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers during press conference at game two of the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Staples center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USA Today/FTW

That the addition of Chris Paul came at the expense of the Lakers in 2011 – with some intervention from the NBA itself¹ – only worked to the Clippers’ detriment. Pulling Doc Rivers from Boston, the NBA’s other most-successful franchise and a city which loved him, further complicated things, as did Blake Griffin’s self-branding of the team upon Paul’s arrival as “Lob City.”

Alright, fine: early on, there was a fair bit of ass-hattery. Despite being arguably the most cerebral player in the league, Paul didn’t help his case by gaining a reputation for, er, “creative liberties,” though that largely stems from an incident which occurred while he was at Wake Forest against Julius Hodge. Last summer’s DeAndre Jordan loss, and then regaining, didn’t endear the Clippers to Dallas, but in fairness, everybody has the right to change their mind².

Without Paul or Griffin, the Clippers are hardly playoff-calibre. In fact, they probably over-performed on Wednesday night in losing only by ten to the Trail Blazers, who have are playing with a distinctly Golden State-esque chip on their shoulders. Los Angeles cannot survive with JJ Redick as its best two-way player, or with Jeff Green playing Blake Griffin minutes, or with Jamal Crawford shooting 6-23.

Before the season, Rivers made comments in which he implied that he may break up the core of this Clippers team if it didn’t win a championship this season. In March, he reneged on that idea, just when it appeared that the core would be healthy and able in time for the postseason. Now, with a championship seemingly out of reach, he has to wonder.

According to FiveThirtyEight, prior to the announcement of Paul’s injury, the Clippers stood to gain the most of any team in terms of odds to win the championship. With San Antonio, Oklahoma City and, yes, Golden State looming in its conference for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles can soon break out a towel and a bowl of steaming water. Never fulfilling potential is one thing, but never having the opportunity to fulfill potential when it consumes every fiber of your being – unfairly, history will call that karmic.

°They have the Coach of the Year in Steve Kerr, in case you hadn’t heard, and another head coaching candidate the Lakers requested to interview.

¹Never forget “basketball reasons”

²I realize this encapsulation conveniently overlooks the circumstances surrounding NBA free agency, such as the timing of deals and the salary cap, which makes “changing your mind” at a late stage much more dire. I’m not DeAndre Jordan, and I’m not his agent. Take it up with them.

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